Cascading Consequences of Terminating Trust

Trust. Who do you know that you know you can always trust? How much does it matter to you? Do you trust your money to buy today’s value next year? Probably not. You know that several presidents have taken “executive action” to tweak the official calculation of inflation to make it look smaller than the increase in the prices you suffer at the grocery store. Now, with the current occupant of the White House caught in over 10,000 lies, how can you trust anyone anymore?

Some things are highly predictable. Others are not. As a general pattern, where I live the weather is quite hard to predict beyond the next few hours. Some days I can predict that it will not rain for the rest of the day. That happens when I have seen the voluminous data compiled into an electronic weather map that shows Santa Fe in the middle of a big high-pressure system. Easy, no rain today.

Predictability and Trust

Rain squallOn other days, I know with a high degree of certainty that it will rain in the area, but whether it happens at my house is a roll of the dice. I can look out west toward the Jemez Mountains and see scattered rain squalls. Whether they reach my garden is subject to a number of factors most of which change as the storm clouds approach or turn north. At that level, the weather at my house is unpredictable. It has nothing to do with trust.

Trust clearly involves predictability, but that is not all. We do not trust or mistrust the weather; we just know it is only partially predictable. When we trust a person, something more is involved – moral motivation. We can predict friends or enemies’ behavior without necessarily trusting them. We may predict an enemy’s behavior without trusting them at all.

Why? Because trust is an integral part of a relationship. The weather does not predict or trust us at all. We try to predict the weather with very limited success, not because of trust but only because of past patterns that we know are often consistent, in general, if not in any specific case. We have certain expectations of politicians, but generally, we do not trust them.

Presidential Prevarication

We can trust some politicians some of the time. That happens when we know that they hold certain values and stick to them when it comes time to vote on a bill put before the legislative body. Various politicians trust each other because they have long-standing relationships involving moral commitments some of which cross party lines. Despite the general untrustworthy character of national politics, it seems clear that politicians have to trust each other to some extent to get anything done. That, of course, is one of the reasons politicians get so little done in this era of political acrimony.

Then, throw into the mix a president who nobody trusts and who trusts nobody. Demanding total allegiance by subordinates but “throwing them under the bus” at the slightest impulse not only causes a great deal of staff turnover. It also eliminates trust as subordinates scramble to predict the next impulsive absurdity or policy blunder devoid of any expert consultation. The sycophants struggle to make sense of their own boot-licking.

Predictable Mistrust

Commentators have recently pointed out, in response to the latest act of trust violation by the pretend-autocrat, that back when impeachment threatened Nixon, he continued to sign legislation the parties considered important for the nation. The parties involved had retained a sufficient level of institutionalized trust to “work together in the nation’s interest.”

In the present instance, however, where prevarication prevails and the only value demonstrated by the president is the self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement of the modern icon of sociopathic narcissism, trust is simply out of the question.

Pelosi and Schumer

Pelosi and Schumer ~ Vox

I doubt that Pelosi and Schumer trusted Trump to negotiate an infrastructure bill in good faith. Yet, they were duty bound to make the attempt. I get the distinct feeling that Pelosi in particular is playing the self-described ultimate player. Cornered by continued failures and court decisions upholding the constitutional separation of powers against his blanket assertion of total executive power, the would-be dictator flails out with increasingly erratic impulse. Even his impulse to be unpredictable is predictable. However, that is no basis for trust.

Communication, Contagion, and Conspiracy

Social contagion is an age-old process of collective behavior. It has been studied by sociologists in the U.S. for decades. In the economic sphere, stock market bubbles that end in a furious crash that reflects the contagion of panic. Economists cite the infamous

Tulipomania

A tulip, known as “the Viceroy,” 1637

collapse of the “Tulip Mania” in Holland in 1637 as the classic example of stock-market contagion gone suddenly reversed. The U.S. financial crash of 2008-9 had elements of contagion, but calculated actions by financial elites artificially drove the market in mortgage derivatives to collapse.

The New Contagion

Today, socio-political contagion has achieved new heights of both intensity and extension through social media. When life is relatively stable, most people behave in routine and mostly traditional ways. They find comfort in the predictability of everyday life supported by a regular paycheck, manageable debt, and hope for a better future. Only when things get dicey do conspiracy theories proliferate and extreme political movements grow contagious and threaten the established order.

Of course, we can always find social outliers in society. Dreamers, artists, and explorers of the unknown chafe at the constraints of social habit. They are restless seekers of new ideas, new images, new frontiers, and vindication for their fertile imaginations. Most of us live in a world where our habitual behaviors are far more important to us than any deviation from social norms. However, that is rapidly changing. As “normalcy” disintegrates and economic and social stability dissipates, fear of the other rises, resentments follow growing instability, and many more people become subject to manipulation by political demagogues.

Conspiracy of Concordance

Today’s socio-political contagion does not result from the imagination of dreamers. Instead, it results from increasingly unstable conditions of life in the last stages of the industrial era. Most people in the industrialized societies of Europe and North America know in their guts that things are not exactly as claimed by the economic culture or dominant institutions. Opportunists such as Steve Bannon quickly exploit the chance to use fear and resentment to their advantage.

The rise to power by neo-fascists, white nationalists, and outright political scam artists rides on the hatred they can generate toward the scapegoats they blame for the conditions brought on by extractive capital and its agents. The societal failures of an industrial system designed to concentrate wealth and power by exploiting land, air, water, and people provide the grist for their mill of hatred. The real conspiracy is between these political opportunists and the super-rich who bankroll them, not among refugees or racial minorities. The political elite rewards their benefactors by tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy and de-regulation for their corporations, then find scapegoats to blame for the painful consequences.

Science and Sanity

The evidence of increasing instability mounts, as the average citizen’s ability to make a living and avoid danger, grows ever more difficult. The evidence of reaching the limits of

highwaterline_miami1

High water coming to Miami soon.

plundering Nature becomes more obvious as the health effects of polluted air, water, and land reach new heights. More frequent and more intense extreme weather events penetrate our emotional shields even as many cognitively deny their human causality. Active suppression of scientific findings by the Trumpists and their financial backers attempts to hide the solid evidence of growing planetary danger. The absurdity of “climate denial” grows with each new report of accelerating glacier melt, drought, superstorms, and species extinction.

It really does not matter whether we prefer to attribute “conspiracy” to the forces of extractive capital, political demagoguery and the culture of hate. These forces need not meet in a smoke-filled room to plot strategy and coordinate their behavior. Their cultural beliefs and economic interests result in coordinated action to gain more and more power.

It is up to the rest of us to find ways to turn our lives away from the destruction they foment and shape a world in which we can live. Little time remains to resist hatred, restore ecosystems, and re-establish our resilience. We must combine human civility with scientific rigor to take the drastic steps needed to dampen the chaos that grows daily.